Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake

On a winter's day when you don't have to go to school, snow is a beautiful thing: white and other-worldly, it falls gently to the ground in unique, fragile flakes, covering the earth in a softening layer that can make even the ugliest landscapes breathtaking. In the Arctic, though, the beauty of snow is underpinned by deadly danger -- in the same way that a beautiful bunch of flowers becomes something more terrible and more devestating when you see it propped against a lamp post at the side of a busy road, with a note pinned to it.

As I start this review, I'm sitting here at my dining room table, wrapped up in a blanket and shivering. There's a good three to five inches of snow on the ground outside, and some pretty stunning icicles hanging off the trellis. This book has made me cold; this is a cold-weather book, a book to be read in the wintertime when there is snow and ice everywhere and the chill menace of Frost can be felt in the air.

I should mention I live in Southern Ontario. We don't get Arctic temperatures down here. The sun still comes up every day and stays that way for at least seven or eight hours. But reading The Secret Ministry of Frost in winter, even here, just adds to the experience.

Light's father was an Arctic researcher, and he's disappeared. The book opens with his funeral at his estate in Ireland; his body has not been found, but it has been six months and he has been declared dead. Light is an orphan now, her mother having died years before, and the only person left to care for her is Butler, her father's friend and trusted servant. But things rapidly get complicated, and perhaps Light's father is not dead after all -- so Light and Butler set off on an infinitely desperate and dangerous journey to save him, and perhaps the world.

Let me just say, this book is hella difficult to summarize. It's complex and wonderful. It defies classification, which I'll talk about more in a moment. The whole thing has deep roots in Inuit mythology, which I will admit to knowing next to nothing about. I'd heard of Setna and that's about it, I'm afraid. I've got a much better grasp on it now. Lake's use of mythology and Inuktitut is central to the feel of this book, and it's a good introduction, I think, to a culture that is very different from mine. There are themes of grief, loss, death, revenge, morality, hope, life, and loyalty running strongly through the storyline, too. It's not as dark as it might sound -- but this book isn't light, either.

It is a great story. On these meaty concerns, Lake has hung some wonderful characters, among whom Light stands out. Light is a powerful, imperfect, and genuine girl. I like that she's tough and smart and a little sassy, but she screams when I would scream, and she makes mistakes that cost her, and she accepts the consequences of her decisions, and she just keeps going because she needs to even when she doesn't think she can. She's skeptical when she should be, but she moves through that realistically too -- when there's evidence to support what she thinks impossible, she doesn't waste precious time going "I see it, but I don't believe it!" She just rolls with it, not without comment but without obstinate self-inflicted ignorance. She was by far my favourite character, and I think she's a character who is going to stick with me.

Now, about classification. I checked: my library has this in the YA section. Simon and Schuster give it an 11+ rating. I could see putting it in the JFICs for sure -- the writing style warrants that, with short, snappy chapters and mostly very easy reading. But I think I know why the library's stuck it in YA: it's violent and scary. There is blood, guts, gore, and characters we grow to love dying in very unpleasant ways, which my library at least tends to avoid putting in the JFIC unless it's an Issues book based on contemporary or historical realities, or a "classic." I don't necessarily agree with this, mind you. But I do think that as a librarian I will be a little careful about which readers I recommend this to, because I know as a kid this book would have given me nightmares. The thing, of course, about classifying this as YA is that more people will read it and that's a good thing. Adults tend not to read in the JFIC (unless they're like me and several other librarians I know, or reading books with their kids) but many of them do occasionally browse the YA, and this is a book that adults will enjoy too.

Overall, this is an amazingly original book, with a fascinating premise, lots of tension, and great action. I love that it's based on a mythology and culture that tends not to show up in literature often, particularly in the fantasy genre, and I would recommend it just for that. Luckily, it's also just an awesome story.

I must thank Mandy for this one. She not only wrote the great review that got me interested, but she then proceeded to give me the book to make sure I did read it! It's taken me a while to get to it (I'm getting to all my Christmas reading now, is how bad the backlog is) but it was absolutely worth the wait.


Aarti said...

WOW, you definitely convinced me to wish list this one! Great review. It sounds like a perfect winter read!

Unknown said...

Always happy to add to the wish list! It is a really cool book.

No pun intended. Ahem.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

What an amazing scene you set for this book - I can picture you sitting there, looking out at your 2/3" of snow and those wonderful icicles.

Unknown said...

It was indeed a perfect setting for writing the review! Although much of it has melted overnight, now; we're starting to get into more seasonal weather again.

Amy Brown said...

It sounds like a fantastic book - I will add it to my list. I love learning about other cultures through fiction. I want to add something flippant about me being lazy but seriously, I think narrative is the best way to learn about each other.

I might read it in summer, though, when I need cooling down.

Interesting discussion about what goes in JFIC and what goes in YA. I have a very precocious 6-year-old reader and I'm having trouble walking that line of books that are "hard" enough for her but with content and themes that are suitable. Clearly this is not one of them!

Unknown said...

Amy - definitely not for six-year-olds! I don't think. I am not the sort of person who likes to make those choices, though, but I think the publisher's 11+ suggestion is pretty good. Sometimes I do find libraries (my own included) can be a little heavy-handed in designating what is for whom, even though we're generally very aware of trying to avoid anything that even slightly resembles censorship. I'm a rabid freedom-to-read proponent and I still have to watch myself constantly.

Phyl said...

I've been away for a while and am way behind on your blog -- but what a great review to come back to! This book sounds so good, and I think I must rush out and read it as soon as I can!

Unknown said...

Welcome back, Phyl! Nice to see you! I do hope you like it. I still think about it, almost two weeks after finishing.

Ana S. said...

This was added to my wishlist before I even finished reading your review. It sounds seriously wonderful, and I love that it's based on Inuit mythology. You're right, it's not something one encounters in literature often, so I'm sure I'll love to be exposed to it through this book.

Me 1 - 0 Google Reader Starred Posts :P

Unknown said...

Yaaaay! Go Nymeth! ;)

I really think you'll like this one. It's so unique and interesting. I'm actually really curious to see what you think of the ending, too, when you get to it. I'm still thinking about it and not sure how I feel.